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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Changing Hands

By Norman Lebrecht / September 17, 2003

In the biggest upheaval in the classical world for a decade, one of the most powerful music agencies has sold up. So where does that leave its stars?

Time was when most matters of musical significance in Britain passed through the hands of Ian Hunter, a shrewd backstager of Scots descent who founded multiple festivals - City of London, Bath, Brighton, Windsor, Malvern, Hong Kong and beyond.

For 35 years Hunter was head of Harold Holt Ltd, the most prestigious classical agency in Britain. The festivals he set up were designed to showcase the many artists he managed, an elite portfolio topped by the cream of violinists - Menuhin, Milstein, Isaac Stern, Ida Haendel.

Sir Ian – he was knighted for services to the interstices between music and money-making – had two eager proteges (too eager, some said). Martin Campbell-White snapped up Simon Rattle and Nigel Kennedy, along with lesser British trundlers. Stephen Wright applied himself to finding conductors; he spotted Mariss Jansons, John Eliot Gardiner, Riccardo Chailly and Franz Welser-Moest. When Hunter retired in 1988 he handed over the reins to Campbell-White, leaving Wright in a Brown-Blair situation. It was bound to end badly. Around this time the sports impresario Mark McCormack met Kiri te Kanawa on a golf course and decided there were exploitable synergies between classical music and his own ball games. He had made millionaires of homespun golfers and tennis-players; he could so the same for maestros and mezzos. McCormack's goal, he told me, was to make his International Management Group 'number one' in classical music.

Mark 'the Shark' bought a small agency in New York, then put in a bid for Holt’s. But close examination showed that it was far less profitable than expected, so he slashed his offer to something derisive. The deal was dead on the table when, one fine day, Stephen Wright walked out with 25 artists and the orchestral touring department to join IMG.

‘We got,‘ McCormack gloated, ‘the most profitable part of Holt’s business and their most talented person in Stephen.’ Wright then raided other firms, luring away two opera agents with dozens of singers. IMG Artists became, within months, the world’s second largest stable of classical talent, adding such stars as Itzhak Perlman, James Galway and Renee Fleming to its roster.

McCormack put on a Wimbledon-week festival at Hampton Court, operas in Tokyo and orchestral concerts at the Nobel Prize ceremony. He spent 16 million dollars on a 1997 festival in Greece, staggering music rivals with the sums he was prepared to splash. He courted Sir Georg Solti and Luciano Pavarotti. He even got some good reviews. But the runes were running against him. After one bad show, he crashed out of arena opera. Television, which boosted sports by seasonally creating new tennis and golf stars, was indifferent to arts. Wright explored new markets in oil-rich south Asia but nothing he did could yield the branding revenues of an Andre Agassi or a Tiger Woods. When I last saw McCormack, he seemed to be losing heart.

Eighteen months ago, IMG told Stephen Wright it wanted out. When McCormack died in May this year, of a routine operation that went inexplicably wrong, buyers were urgently being sought. A small Cambridge based agency came sniffing. After examining the books, it offered a paltry 3.5m dollars. Wright’s division, it appears, had lost £1m last year. Key artists weredefecting. Jansons recently negotiated his own music directorships in Munich and Amsterdam without reference, or commission, to IMG.

Just as the buyout reached the point of mutual recrimination, a saviour emerged. Barrett Wissman, a venture capitalist of well-cultivated obscurity, offered to buy a majority share in IMG Artists for a reputed $7.5m. The deal allows Wissman to use the IMG name, though without the IMG clout. 'I am not only content,' says Edna Landau who heads the New York office, 'I am quite excited and inspired. This is someone with a real passion for the art.'

Wissman, so far as I can ascertain, started out in chemicals and fertilisers before making his fortune in the mid-90s as a backer of internet start-ups. His main vehicle, Novo Networks, is based in Dallas and has eight employees. Wismann, aged 40, earned $190,000 from Novo in the financial year ending June 2002. In that year, all of Novo's operating subsidiaries applied for protective bankruptcy and the company declared that it had 'no operations or revenues' - not much of a launchpad for ruling the musical waves.

Whatever his assets, there is no doubting Wissman's appetite for art. He holds a master's degree in music from Southern Methodist University and a doctorate from an Italian academy. He describes himself as 'a former concert pianist' and has set up a fund which loans fine instruments to needy string players. But the epiphanic moment in his musical career was the night when he was 'swept away at a London concert' by a Russian cellist, Nina Kotova, whom he wooed and soon married.

I think I attended the same recital. Kotova was a 5' 11" Russian catwalk model, featured in Elle magazine's 25 Hot List and signed by the Philips label (through her stepfather, Robert Poole, who lived in Ashford, Kent), more for her striking looks than her Muscovite virtuosity. I remember nothing of the performance. Kotova played competently - she had been pedigree-trained from early childhood - but without a trace of individuality. In conversation, she gave nothing away. Her debut disc fizzled out, and there was no follow up. Instead, she got married on June 30, 2001 at Wissman's family ranch in Red Lodge, Montana.

Nina thus became the wife of a man who now owns the second biggest slice of classical music. 'We don't know yet,' whispers one IMG Artists director, 'if he perceives this as an investment, or if it's something he has always wanted to do, or if he's doing it for her.'

Time will tell. But with the ink still wet on the confidential deal, the consequences for the future of classical music are startlingly clear. McCormack's bid for global dominance inflicted lasting damage on a delicate infrastructure. Rather than enriching musicians, McCormack inflated the worth of a pack of agents - Wright earns £300,000 - and reduced artists to pawns in a chess match that is running out of time. Both Wright and his rival Campbell-White (who formed a defensive alliance with another agency), have grown broad of beam and rich in self-esteem. In a new Cambridge Companion to Conducting, Stephen Wright contributes a pompous essay on how he makes great maestros. Performers, meanwhile, have seen their incomes shrivel and their art lose its place in the public esteem.

The age of mega-agents is over, its promises unfulfilled. What we are witnessing is a return to the self-effacing, small-scale ways of Ian Hunter, who died this month, in a business that has been decimated and an art that has been abused almost to the point of breakdown.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001